“Vice,” written and directed by Adam McKay, is messy going as it chronicles Dick Cheney’s Machiavellian rise from boozing lout to democracy-crushing de facto commander. But this bio-comedy and political crazy quilt is nonetheless winningly energetic and imaginative.
McKay taps into somewhat recent history, depicts egregious behavior and employs a playful, anything-goes storytelling style in this follow-up to his similarly crafted “The Big Short.”
A transformed Christian Bale plays Cheney, who’s a drunken underachiever, booted from Yale, when we meet him in Wyoming in 1963. When his fiancee, Lynne (Amy Adams), tells him she won’t marry a loser, Cheney promises not to disappoint her again. He keeps his word, sometimes chillingly.
He becomes a Capitol Hill lackey, assisting brash, crude congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). Plum legislative and administrative jobs follow. Both lucky and stealthy, Cheney enters the White House power core. In 2000, George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), portrayed as a malleable dolt, asks Cheney to be his running mate. Cheney accepts, after manipulating Bush to expand vice-presidential powers.
Immediately following the 9/11 attacks, a barely hinged Cheney is running the show. His behind-the-scenes maneuvers lead to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. That war killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Cheney’s legacy also includes torture.
Cheney demonstrates decency only as a family man. When daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out as a lesbian, he responds supportively, though things get thorny when daughter Liz (Lily Rabe) opposes gay marriage when running for senator.
How does a monotone bureaucrat with zero charisma become the most powerful VP in U.S. history and possibly the most powerful man on Earth? Addressing that question, often through a mysterious narrator, McKay focuses on Cheney’s keen ability to recognize and grab every choice opportunity.
Not a graceful filmmaker, McKay fills the movie with stylistically incompatible comic devices and more informational bits than we can process. Cheney’s heart attacks unsubtly symbolize a rotten heart. A waiter reading from a torture-related menu has a sketch-TV quality.
Yet McKay delivers so much creative energy and Bale is so scarily Cheney-like that the film prompts enough laughs and contains enough sizzling truths to overcome its flaws, whether Dick and Lynne are engaging in McKay-scripted “Macbeth”-style pillow talk or Cheney is dangerously enhancing presidential authority.
And the violations of democracy seen onscreen can’t help but suggest the current Washington scene.
While Bale’s Cheney indeed benefits from ace makeup artistry, and looks convincingly balder and fleshier as the years progress, the actor goes beyond the physical. He conveys a growing contemptuousness and Cheney/Bale’s smirky impressions transcend imitation. When Cheney senses an opportunity to seize power, a spark faintly but unsettlingly flickers in Bale’s eyes.
Adams, playing, essentially, Lady Macbeth lite, is excellent as always, but can do only so much with her role. Rockwell and Carell, in tune with McKay’s spiritedness, are one-dimensional but entertaining support.
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell
Written and directed by: Adam McKay
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes